It’s a goal his own father failed to achieve during his time in Congress, but Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) has begun a campaign to restore the standing of a famous relative who quit the Army more than 75 years ago under pressure from a military establishment that hated his outspoken ways.
William “Billy” Mitchell, the father of the Air Force and a pioneer from the early days of flight, has become an icon to those who, like him, would rather buck the system than be part of it.
Mitchell left the Army in 1926 after a spectacular court martial that riveted the nation. Faced with a five-year suspension at half pay following his conviction on trumped-up charges, Mitchell resigned his commission. He died a decade later, never having returned to the uniform that he proudly wore for 28 years.
Bass, who has heard family stories about “Uncle Willie” since he was a child, recently introduced legislation to posthumously grant Mitchell a new commission, with a promotion to major general, dating back to 1936, the year of his death.
H.R. 2755, though, has personal significance for Bass beyond ensuring Mitchell finally gets his due.
The Congressman’s father, former Rep. Perkins Bass (R-N.H.), introduced the exact same legislation July 16, 1957 — only to see it derailed by those in the Army who still held a grudge against Mitchell, a brilliant, vain man famous for speaking his mind no matter what the consequences.
Like Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who each Congress submits a national health insurance bill first proposed by his father in the 1940s, Bass has now taken up his father’s cause.
Bass actually introduced his bill on July 16 of this year — 46 years to the day after his own father introduced the bill. The elder Bass served four terms in the House, while Charles Bass is in his fifth term.
“He certainly was a visionary,” Bass said of Mitchell, the oldest brother of his maternal grandmother’s.
The lawmaker added that his mother “used to talk about Uncle Willie all the time,” including his inability to sit still for even a brief period of time. “He had a high metabolic rate, people used to say,” Bass joked.
Bass also told of how his dad had attempted to restore Mitchell to the service he loved, but “the Army blocked the bill.”
Bass hopes his proposal avoids a similar fate, and the Granite State Republican has found a powerful ally to help him in his quest.
House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) has signed onto the legislation after “chatting about this for many years,” according to Bass.
The Armed Services Committee has not scheduled the bill for a markup, but a Hunter aide describes his boss as someone who “can often be heard quoting Mitchell on the floor or in the committee about the need to look ahead in the defense of the country.”
Another well-known Congressional maverick, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), laughed when told of the proposal by Bass.
“[Mitchell] didn’t mind taking on the establishment, including the Navy,” said McCain, a former Navy pilot and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I’d be glad to look at that.”
Mitchell’s life reads like a novel. Born in France in 1879, his father was a Senator and his grandfather a two-term House Member.
Despite his father’s well-known pacifism, Mitchell enlisted in the Army in 1898 to take part in the Spanish-American War.
By 1912, Mitchell had been promoted to the Army’s general staff, where he became fascinated with airplanes and their potential use in military conflicts. With the start of World War I in 1914, Mitchell became determined to learn how to fly, which he eventually did two years later.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, Mitchell, already in France, became one of the first American under fire — and he won the Croix de Guerre for his efforts.
Mitchell eventually was placed in charge of 1,500 U.S. and Allied aircraft for the great American offensives of 1918, and was widely hailed for his organizational abilities and leadership.
Following his return to the United States at the end of the war, Mitchell began a long crusade to convince American leaders to invest in war planes and to organize them in an independent branch of the military, despite heavy opposition from senior Army and Navy officials.
Mitchell’s most famous moment came when he orchestrated a stunning demonstration of air power by bombing captured German dreadnoughts in 1921, sinking one battleship in minutes despite claims from Navy officials that it could not be done.
But Mitchell had made powerful enemies over the years in the War Department, and he was demoted to his prewar rank of colonel and banished to Texas.
In 1925, after Mitchell publicly criticized the high command following several fatal aviation accidents, he was hauled before a court martial and convicted on two counts of conduct prejudicial to the military service. Several months later, Mitchell resigned his commission rather than accept the court’s sentence. He continued to speak out about the vital role of air power until his death in 1936.
Although he had been ousted from the Army, Mitchell’s vision of air power was embraced by the generation of American military leaders who steered the country through World War II, and in 1946 he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor.
Hollywood also liked his story, and a film starring Gary Cooper was made a decade later. In addition, Mitchell has been a popular subject for biographers and military historians.
To the Bass family, however, these tributes are not enough. They would like to see Mitchell restored to his rightful rank, even if it is 67 years late.
“He was the father of the modern Air Force,” Bass said. “This should be done.”